By Bethany Monroe, Molalla Pioneer
The traditional hats, beards and attire of two Jewish rabbis visiting Molalla likely made more than a few passers-by do a double-take as the men strolled down Main Street.
Rabbis Shmuel Druk and Mendel Pershin, both 24, are visiting cities and communities in rural areas around Salem, seeking to help local Jews connect with their heritage.
“The main goal with this trip is to go around and meet Jewish families in rural communities where they don’t have a Jewish community,” Druk said.
The two men are part of the Rabbinical Student Visitation program with the Chabad movement, a branch of Hasidic Judaism based in New York. The program sends young rabbis and students around the globe every summer to visit Jewish families.
The program was founded by the late Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the highly-respected leader of the Chabad movement known for his outreach and acts of charity.
Unlike many Jews in the Northwest, Rabbi Shmuel Druk’s life has been steeped in Jewish teachings and traditions.
Druk grew up in Michigan with his 11 siblings, where he attended a private school and studied Jewish law from a young age. His studies also took him to Israel, Argentina and Japan.
Druk’s father was born in Israel. His mother grew up in Soviet-occupied Russia, where her family experienced religious persecution under the Communist government.
“Freedom of religion was not an option in those days, but you had to fight for what you believed,” Druk said.
As a child, Druk’s mother would play sick every Friday so that she would not have to attend school and break the Sabbath.
“They don’t even tell us the half of it of how they suffered there,” Druk said.
While most of the rabbis in the traveling program are students, Druk works managing a medical supply company in New York. Both he and Mendel took time off from their jobs to come to Oregon.
“It’s the experience of a lifetime to go meet Jewish families all over and to see Oregon,” Druk said.
In each town they visit, the rabbis attempt to meet with other Jews. They sometimes go through phonebooks calling Jewish-sounding last names and ask around town for Jewish connections.
They are often invited into homes to talk about Jewish holidays and religious beliefs and to help people get plugged in with local Jewish communities.
“It’s encouraging,” Druk said. “You feel you’re making a difference in peoples’ lives.”
David and Manya Helman of Silverton look forward to the yearly visits from the young rabbis.
“We’ve been living in Silverton for 14 years and we’re very happy to have these rabbis come out,” David Helman said.
Manya Helman grew up in a family that observed some Jewish traditions but did not keep a kosher home or observe the Sabbath.
The Helmans have become more observant of Judaism in recent years and now are active with the Chabad Jewish Center of Salem.
“It was a long road, but it was wonderful to find out who we were,” Manya Helman said.
The visiting rabbis are fulfilling the commandments of the Torah — the Jewish book of law — by connecting with Jews who have lost familiarity with their heritage, she said.
“There’s a commandment in the Torah to return a lost object to its owner,” Helman said.
The Helmans recently visited Jerusalem, where marketplaces shut down on the Sabbath and kosher food is the norm.
“It’s very, very easy in that environment to be observant,” David said.
Back at home in Silverton, soccer games are often scheduled on the Sabbath and acquiring kosher foods often requires a trip to Portland, sometimes making it a challenge to practice Orthodox Judaism.
Still, David Helman said he loves living in Silverton and that the community and his children’s public schools “lean over backwards” to accommodate their beliefs. His son’s wrestling teammates would even occasionally don the traditional caps worn by Jewish males to show their support.
“We’ve been very blessed that all of our children have a very strong Jewish identity,” David Helman said.
Clara Frost, an Albany, Ore. resident, also met with Druk and Pershin.
“They came over to our home and we had a very nice visit,” Frost said.
When Frost first moved to Albany from New York in 1962, she found it difficult to purchase traditional Jewish foods, such as matzo.
“It’s much easier now, but when we first came to Oregon, my mother used to mail me all the supplies for Passover,” Frost said.
Now she is part of a Jewish community in Corvallis and identifies herself as a reformed Jew. She doesn’t follow kosher laws or attend regular synagogue services.
Still, she appreciated the opportunity to meet with the rabbis.
“They did explain more about Orthodox Judaism to me, which I was happy about,” Frost said. “One thing I really appreciated, they didn’t try to push anything on anybody. … They want to help people and I think they really mean it.”
So far, Druk and Pershin have not met any Jewish families in the Molalla area, but they still have almost a week left in their two-week Oregon stay to make connections.
“It’s something that I always wanted to do,” Druk said. “It’s in my blood. This was something I was brought up on and it’s a value of my life.”